Hybrid design professions are changing and moving traditional boundaries

No doubt, for some architects and designers, success is fleeting. However, there is plenty of convincing evidence that architects are not only delivering impactful value but also they are being recognized and monetized for their leadership in the marketplace.

In this issue of DesignIntelligence, our trends and strategies issue, we discuss our annual survey of leading firms and organizations who are changing in order to create new value. The research shows many new advantages unfolding for professional practices; advantages that can be measured. These new value propositions are being led by professionals who are bringing into the marketplace refreshing analytics and invention. Our survey shows how hybrid design professions are changing and moving traditional boundaries. Step by step, these innovators are not only discovering but also creating the future.

You might recall the Taoist definition of leadership: “Find a parade and walk in front.” Sage and timeless advice. It turns out that there are many parades to lead. In these zones of service, nearly eighty percent of professional practices have backlogs that are ahead of last year. New markets also have a new business language and this is causing change in traditional markets as well. New niches looking not just forward but sideways.

Alert firms are spearheading a new design profession, one that uncovers pathways to sustain their vitality and then stretch them further into new zones of relevance. For many in our survey of leading firms, influence is expanding, sometimes more than they realized possible. And they are having fun.

Why and how? The marketplace and the accelerating change is driving innovation. New solutions — faster and more efficient — are being developed. This is happening in meaningful ways in the traditional marketplaces (healthcare design, mixed use innovation, new city models, etc.) as well as the emerging digital marketplace (rapid prototyping and 3D printing, virtual reality, risk intelligence, algorithm design, silos into distributed teams, etc.).

The architecture and design professions are expanding their relevance. They are growing their market share in both traditional and previously undiscovered markets, and crossing borders into new arenas where the game is different. They are identifying zones of services that will grow markets, resulting in increased capital and economic traction. Social responsibility is also increasingly part of the new initiative models.

Initiatives taken by design leaders have the effect of expanding the market pie. And so while every aspect of the architecture practice is changing, the new context is imbedded with opportunity. Moreover, this is having the tendency of playing to the strengths of the new profession.

There are measurable indicators that the influence of architects and designers is expanding. It may not the case in all regions and all markets, but it is increasingly evidenced in myriad examples, city by city, state by state, and country after country.

This issue explores survey results from firms around the world who are reinventing themselves. We have researched the firms, verified their success and interviewed their leaders. The findings and analysis are contained herein. These firms are pursuing never-ending change, some of it radical.

As you read the results of our survey you may think about the relevance to your own situation. To aid you, I have prepared a short action plan to get you started.

A Sample Action Plan for Your 2016:

  1. Set growth rate goals at 8 to 12 percent in traditional markets and aggressively higher in fast growing markets.
  2. Talk with your partners and staff about the importance of embracing constant change — about staying current with the constantly morphing wants and needs of clients.
  3. Keep your vision current and fresh. Make sure that the whole firm understands the vision for the future to guide growth and reinvention. Set the vision for 2019. Always use a three-year horizon. All reinvention is short cycle now. Stand in front of a mirror and deliver your vision. Convinced?
  4. Embrace the concept that your firm can grow even if the markets don’t. Never use the excuse that the economy is your enemy. It’s just a reality factor, not a defeater.
  5. Earn a virtual seat in your client’s board room. You can be part of the bloodstream of your client’s enterprise. Remember: trust wins.
  6. Create both an internal and external communications plan that embraces social media and digital tools. Internally, this will build transparency, confidence, and a get-real culture. Externally, it will build your brand and make you stand apart from organizations who say they do what you do.
  7. Be the disruptor, not the disrupted. Make change and reinvention an intentional part of your culture. This requires bold leadership because change is seldom initiated by the mid-level or bottom levels in professional practices. That future favors the bold. Don’t try to be the most popular leader but the most effective. This will earn you respect.

Architects and designers not only have more influence than in the past but also the emerging trends are working in favor of those in the creative class who also have business skills.

At the recent Design Futures Council Leadership Summit on the Business of Design in New York City, we explored the concept of a friction-free construction industry. We wondered about the “Uberization” of design and construction, and the effects of Big Data on firms who use information to constantly increase productivity. We explored intellectual capital in the form of brands, copyrights, new processes, and relationships — human capital. We imagined a new world order in the global design and construction industry.

Architects have more influence because they are often the most trusted professionals in the industry. They occupy a position in the marketplace that is about more than just improving a building or a corporation. The influence is expansive toward improving whole communities, creating new cities, and improving the lives of others. Imagine your firm not only winning design awards and achieving respectable profits, but also leading social responsibility as trusted advisor. This is within your reach.

We hope this issue helps you prepare for the future. To understand it, to see both the hard trends and the soft trends, to anticipate, and to invent. Along with this issue we are providing a New Year’s gift: our guide to becoming a trend master. We hope you will enjoy the supplement and that you will find it useful throughout the year ahead.

As Mark Carney of the Bank of England said in a presentation last fall, “the more we invest with foresight, the less we will regret in hindsight.”


James P. Cramer is the chairman and co-founder of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group and author of three books on professional practice leadership.